France’s Le Graët Steps Down but Lands on His Feet With FIFA

PARIS — Noël Le Graët, the embattled president of France’s soccer federation, stepped down on Tuesday, bringing an end to the long tenure of an executive whose grip on power — aided by powerful friendships — endured through on-field triumphs and off-field scandals.

Battered by accusations of misconduct and mismanagement, Le Graët finally yielded to mounting calls for his removal at a special meeting of the board of the French federation, widely known by its three letter acronym, F.F.F. His announcement came two weeks after the completion of an audit into the organization revealed years of improper behavior even as France produced some of its best national teams, sending its men’s team to consecutive World Cup finals and hosting the Women’s World Cup on home soil in 2019.

The audit had been commissioned by France’s sports minister amid growing reports of personal misconduct by Le Graët, including his sending inappropriate late-night text messages to female staff members. The sports minister, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, had publicly called for Le Graët’s resignation in January. On Tuesday, she hailed what she called “the right decision for the F.F.F. and for himself.”

But even as he quit the federation under pressure, his place in soccer seemed secure: FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, appointed Le Graët last year to oversee its new office in Paris, and on Tuesday several of his federation colleagues offered him congratulations on that role.

Misgivings about Le Graët’s continued presence in the presidency he had held since 2011 only increased as he created a string of controversies while the investigation was ongoing. Late last year, he infuriated French government officials before the World Cup by playing down the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar. After the tournament, he made derogatory statements about Zinedine Zidane, a World Cup winner considered to be one of the best players France has ever produced. Le Graët later took back his remarks and apologized to Zidane.

Still, the 81-year-old Le Graët retained numerous allies despite the turmoil, including Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, who had reportedly lobbied on his behalf as his ouster neared. Infantino last year named Le Graët as his presidential delegate to oversee FIFA’s new office in Paris, an outpost that has taken on increasingly important roles that had once been the exclusive preserve of staff members at FIFA’s headquarters in Switzerland.

Éric Borghini, a member of the French federation board present at Tuesday’s meeting, suggested Le Graët would continue in that role. It is unclear, though, if Le Graët will continue with his efforts to retain his seat on the soccer body’s governing board, the FIFA Council, in an election in April.

Philippe Diallo, the vice president of the federation, will act as interim president of the F.F.F. until June 10, the date of its next general assembly.

Far from excoriating Le Graët, his former colleagues rallied around the now ex-president. “Everywhere he has gone, the institutions and clubs he has led have been successful,” Diallo said.

The official federation statement announcing his exit sought to celebrate French soccer’s successes under Le Graët, noting that under his direction France’s men’s and women’s teams had secured 11 titles and played in six international finals. The statement also pointed to infrastructure developments and the economic health of the federation.

It did not make reference to the turmoil that has enveloped the federation since the men’s team’s success at the 2018 World Cup in France, including allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Some of those problems grew so toxic that several senior staff members complained about the workplace environment, a crisis that in 2020 forced Le Graët to call in an outside expert specializing in repairing damaged workplaces.

Those efforts failed to yield results beyond preserving the positions of Le Graët and his second in command, Florence Hardouin. Hardouin is negotiating her departure from the federation after the government-sponsored investigation accused her of employing “brutal methods and erratic behavior.” Her legal team has since suggested she acted as a whistle-blower in the claims against Le Graët.

The federation sought to protect itself in the aftermath of his resignation, claiming the investigation failed to reveal any systemic failure or any failure to fulfill its core mission. “The F.F.F. nevertheless notes that this report is based less on objective facts than on assessments which have sometimes led to a disproportionate denigration of the body,” it said.

Current and former officials, meanwhile, continued to insist that removing Le Graët would not be enough to fix the federation’s problems.

“The important point is not Le Graët and Hardouin,” said Pierre Samsonoff, the former head of the federation’s amateur soccer division. “What is important is the way the institution is ruled.”

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